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Alarming spike in Great Lakes drownings tied to COVID-19, study finds

Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

"I grew up in a place where people think, 'If I'm in trouble in the water, there's a lifeguard here to protect me,' " he said. "In Michigan, we just don't have that culture, generally. It's like you're in the third world of water safety, right here in the U.S."

Statistics show consistently that nationwide, most drowning deaths occur outside of the supervision of a lifeguard, Field said. But in Michigan, he said, "we just don't have" lifeguards.

Field had particular ire for concepts such as red-flag warning days, when wave conditions are declared dangerous. Earlier studies show many young males seek out such water conditions because the powerful waves are fun for body-surfing and jumping off of piers, he said.

"If we're going to be a state that relies on flags to protect people, we should ticket people when they go out into the water when it's a red flag, and actually close the beach," he said.

Michigan has no specific provisions for beaches or state park and recreational facilities in its current COVID-19 related restrictions. Mask-wearing and social distancing of at least 6 feet remain requirements for outdoor as well as indoor activities. Mask-wearing is not required while swimming.


Houser said he hopes his and Vlodarchyk's research reminds people that "the beach, as much as it is an important means by which you can get out of the house to escape the restrictions of the pandemic, can still be a dangerous situation. You need to understand the beach, follow the flags, the warnings."

The report is also a reminder to policy makers, he said.

"When we go into a public health issue like COVID, it diverts a lot of attention and resources, but it exposes other public health issues," he said.


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